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Commentaires écrits par
Jennifer Cameron-Smith "Expect the Unexpected" (ACT, Australia)
(TOP 50 REVIEWER)   

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Kindred Souls: The Devoted Friendship of Eleanor Roosevelt and Dr. David Gurewitsch
Kindred Souls: The Devoted Friendship of Eleanor Roosevelt and Dr. David Gurewitsch
Prix : CDN$ 9.99

4.0 étoiles sur 5 ‘The writing of this book was not always a labor of love.’, Sept. 10 2014
This is a book about the friendship between Eleanor Roosevelt and Dr David Gurewitsch, her personal physician and friend, during the last fifteen years of Mrs Roosevelt’s life. This account is written by David’s wife Edna and draws on both the diaries David kept and the hundreds of letters that he and Mrs Roosevelt exchanged over the years of their friendship. In 1962, in one of her letters to Dr Gurewitsch, Mrs Roosevelt had written: ‘Above all others you are the one to whom my heart is tied.’ Theirs was an intense relationship: they often travelled and entertained together and, after his marriage to Edna in February 1958, the three of them bought and lived in a town house in Manhattan which they divided into two separate apartments.

Mrs Gurewitch provides a unique perspective on their private friendship: she has her own memories of each of them as well as their voluminous correspondence and Dr Gurewitsch’s diaries. She writes that:

‘As a physician, David had private recognition, but he craved public approval. Mrs Roosevelt had public recognition, but she craved intimacy. Each satisfied the other’s hunger for acceptance. It was a fair exchange.’

She writes as well that:

‘Despite the closeness of their bond, evidenced in her extremely caring letters to him, David and Mrs Roosevelt were never lovers. Indeed, the tragedy of this superior woman was that she never had the absolute, intimate love of a man.’

The Eleanor Roosevelt who appears through the pages of this book is a kind and generous woman, interested in others, but also lonely and vulnerable, sometimes jealous and sometimes apparently overwhelmed by feelings of inadequacy. And yet, despite these insecurities, Mrs Roosevelt was able to make an enormous contribution to the USA (and the world). A woman born in the late nineteenth century, living through times when few women had any significant role in public life, Mrs Roosevelt seems to have met many challenges of the 20th century with courage and dignity.

‘The profound contrast between Mrs Roosevelt’s dependence upon receiving love and her considerable awareness of the power of her capabilities – the bottomless neediness that coexisted with her enormous strength – never ceases to amaze me.’

While this book was primarily about David Gurewitsch and Eleanor Roosevelt, I find myself wondering about the impact of their close friendship on Edna Gurewitsch’s life as David’s wife. It is often true that while two is company, three is a crowd.

I enjoyed reading this book: it offered me a different and human perspective of Eleanor Roosevelt. Edna Gurewitsch writes: ‘She was one of the few people in this world in which greatness and modesty coexisted’.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer
The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer
Offered by Simon & Schuster Canada, Inc.
Prix : CDN$ 24.99

5.0 étoiles sur 5 ‘This book is a history of cancer.’, Sept. 3 2014
People in the past tended to die of other diseases (and in poorer countries, still do), but as our longevity increases so does the incidence of cancer. As we extend our lives, Mukherjee writes, ‘we inevitably unleash malignant growth’. But what is cancer, how can we understand and treat it?

In this book, which I first read a couple of years ago, Siddhartha Mukherjee writes of the first documented appearances of cancer thousands of years ago, of the Persian Queen Atossa (550-475 BCE) who has surgery for a bleeding lump in her breast (as recorded by Herodotus in ‘The Histories’), of primitive radiation and chemotherapy treatments in the nineteenth century, of the new treatments available to patients now.

In addition to discussing treatments (and some of us will remember those who had endured the Halsted radical mastectomy for breast cancer) Dr Mukherjee examines the aetiology and pathology of cancer, and some of those who’ve been involved in the quest for understanding and answers. Our co-existence with cancer over the past five thousand years or so has not been passive: physicians, surgeons and scientists have all sought to understand and hoped to conquer the disease. Dr Mukherjee recounts discoveries and setbacks, deaths and victories. Understanding the journey brings the reader in contact with both the best and worst of humanity: dedicated and obsessive; ingenious and resilient; hubristic and inflexible; arrogant and detached.

‘Cancer, we have discovered, is stitched into our genome.’

Although the topic of cancer is uncomfortable and difficult, Dr Mukherjee has presented a very readable history of the disease and of progress in combatting it. Some of this progress is too late for family and friends who’ve already succumbed to death as a consequence of cancer, but is helping many people now and will (presumably) help more in the future. There’s hope in this book: that a better understanding of disease processes will lead to better health outcomes.

If there is a war against cancer, what will be our measure of victory? What constitutes a cure?

‘This war on cancer may best be ‘won’ by redefining victory.’

Both my parents and a number of friends have died of cancer in the past four years, and other friends are fighting their own battles. I’ve revisited this book recently, to remind myself that there has been great progress, and there is hope.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

When The Sky Was Protected (Grace Bryant, Federal Air Marshal Book 1)
When The Sky Was Protected (Grace Bryant, Federal Air Marshal Book 1)
Prix : CDN$ 3.21

4.0 étoiles sur 5 ‘They both knew what they had to do. It was their duty after all to protect the national security of their country.’, Sept. 1 2014
On 10 January 2008, Grace Bryant is waiting to board Alaska Airlines Flight 874 to Washington from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. This is to be Grace’s last flight as a Federal Air Marshal: she’s been promoted to Special Agent in Charge of the Seattle Field Office, and will take over her new role after this flight. While she’s waiting she sees on the national news that President Bush has met with the Israeli Prime Minister and hopes to draft an agreement that will finally end the violence in Israel. Amongst the other passengers, Grace notices three Middle Eastern men. Two other Federal Air Marshals are also travelling on the flight: Grace’s long-time friend and colleague Justin Cole and a new team member: Andrew Cole. The flight is full.

Ninety minutes into the flight, Grace learns that Israel is not going along with President Bush’s plan, and that violence has broken out in Gaza and on the West Bank. At the same time as Grace is learning this, one of the Middle Eastern passengers she noticed earlier has moved near the cockpit door and stabs a flight attendant who tells him to return to his seat. A man who tries to help the attendant is shot. Grace is able to alert the pilot.

How many terrorists are there, and what arms do they have? Can the Air Marshals prevail? Grace is at the rear of the plane, some distance from her seat and from her weapon.

‘Grace couldn’t come up with the correct plan because she wasn’t sure what his motivation was. What did he want out of this?’

Grace survives the attack, but there are many questions to be answered before she can move on with her life. The trauma of the experience is part of it, but knowing who and trying to understand why is important to Grace, even if it causes other disruptions in her life.

The novel moves between different aspects in the lead up to the attack, during the attack, and afterwards. The shifts are clearly signalled and although it is disconcerting at times to move from one aspect to another, it is not confusing. There are a couple of twists in the tale, and while some procedural aspects seemed unlikely to me, it didn’t stop me enjoying the story.

Note: I was offered and accepted a copy of the novel for review purposes.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

The Swan Book
The Swan Book
Prix : CDN$ 9.99

5.0 étoiles sur 5 ‘This is the quest to regain sovereignty over my own brain.’, Sept. 1 2014
This review is from: The Swan Book (Kindle Edition)
This novel is set in Australia in the future: around the time of the third centenary, in a world fundamentally altered by climate change, and where – following an Army Intervention - Aboriginals are living in a fenced camp alongside a stinking swamp containing the refuse of war. It follows the life of a mute young woman called Oblivia Ethylene. Oblivia is the victim of gang rape, who lives on a hulk in a swamp surrounded by rusting boats and thousands of black swans. Oblivia is plucked from this displaced community to be married to Warren Finch, soon to be the first Aboriginal president Australia, and confined to a tower in lawless, flooded southern city.

‘Swans mate for life: that was what she thought.’

And what does the future hold for Oblivia in this novel? Oblivia’s world, with its swans, with its caste of amazing characters such as Aunty Bella Donna of the Champions, the Harbour Master, three genies (Dr Snip Hart, Dr Edgar Mail and Dr Bones Doom) and a talking monkey called Rigoletto. Who defines what is real, and how it impacts on the world? What does it mean to be homeless and dispossessed? In a world drastically turned upside down by climate change, where mass movements of refugees around the world are a consequence of cities drowning, local Aboriginal governments exist alongside high-ranking national Aboriginal politicians.

‘Should angels be eaten, even one, by so many hungry people?’

Oblivia may have been transported to a new world, but she is still part of her old world. The past, present and future are equally important. The swans are an integral part of all aspects of Oblivia’s world. Oblivia may be mute, but her mind is unrestrained. There is both great humour and (at times unexpected) humour in this novel. It is rich in metaphor and full of wonderful storytelling and difficult constructs.

‘A crescent moon moved so low across the swamp that its reflection over rippling water looked like the wings of a magnificent
white swan.'

So, what did I make of this book? There is not one definitive conclusion: ‘The Swan Book’ is one of those novels that has made me work hard in order to try to understand it, and will continue to occupy space in my consciousness. Is it about love? About climate change? About dispossession? About myth, culture and reality? ‘The Swan Book’ defines any attempt at simple categorisation, and it is not meant to be read and put aside. I enjoyed it, and I hated it, I laughed and I cried. And above all, I’m thinking.

‘Her mind was only a lonely mansion for the stories of extinction.’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Sequence of Self
Sequence of Self
Prix : CDN$ 5.43

4.0 étoiles sur 5 ‘Did it work that way? Did people set out in one direction and end up going another?’, Aug. 28 2014
This review is from: Sequence of Self (Kindle Edition)
January Winston is a mother of two, hoping to establish her own business with the help of $250,000 - money that she and her current boyfriend/fiancé George scammed from a previous employer. But January’s life is turned upside down when she is attacked in her own home. Her attacker, Rey Parsons, has already spent time in prison. He’s paranoid and angry, sometimes confused, and doesn’t always remember to take his medication. January doesn’t identify Rey in a police line-up, and he’s released. While both January and George consider seeking revenge, George becomes obsessed by it. And in the meantime, January’s life starts to fall apart. By contrast, Rey gets a job in a telephone company, and becomes successful.

The story moves between January and Rey, and backwards and forwards in time which enables the reader to get some sense of who January and Rey are, and were. Can January find happiness and success, and will it include George? Are January’s parents a help, or a hindrance? Will Rey have to answer for his actions, or can a changed (more productive) life atone for the past?

‘Time did and did not pass. That was the simple fact of it.’

There are no blameless heroes in this story, but it’s difficult not to feel some sympathy for both January and Rey. It’s quite an accomplishment for an author to create such flawed characters who are not (at least in my reading) completely beyond redemption. But are they redeemed? It’s difficult to know. The structure of the novel is challenging because of the shifts in time and between the characters breaks the flow of the story. But if you can accommodate these fractures in the story, you may well enjoy this novel. I kept wondering about alternate sequences of self, of different lives for both January and Rey. And despite the fact that I liked neither character very much, they appear to have taken up temporary residence in my mind. At least, I hope it is a temporary residence.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

The Night Guest: A Novel
The Night Guest: A Novel
Offered by Macmillan CA
Prix : CDN$ 10.99

5.0 étoiles sur 5 ‘Ruth woke at four in the morning and her blurry brain said, ‘Tiger’. That was natural; she was dreaming.’, Aug. 26 2014
Elderly and widowed, living on her own in an isolated house on a beach on the east coast of Australia, Ruth Field senses a tiger prowling around her house. She rings her son Jeffrey in New Zealand to tell him. This may only be a flight of fancy, or is it a harbinger of greater danger ahead?

The next morning, a woman appears at Ruth’s home: ‘My name is Frida Young, and I’m here to look after you.’ Frida has, she says, been sent by the government as a carer to help Ruth with cleaning and cooking. Jeffrey, on the telephone from New Zealand, is wants to see the paperwork but is delighted about what he considers to be a good use of taxpayer funds.

And so Frida, who arrives each morning with a different hairstyle (and sometimes colour) brings Ruth back from an essentially solitary life, providing help and companionship. Frida looks Fijian to Ruth, and this reminds her of her childhood with her missionary parents in Fiji, and of her first love: Richard. She gets in touch with Richard, and invites him to visit for a weekend. When Richard visits, Ruth discovers that Frida has moved into her spare room: the room that her son Phillip once used. Ruth doesn’t remember inviting Frida to move in, but Frida is adamant that she did.

It’s clear that Ruth’s memory is worsening, and while her memory of the past is clear there are gaps in her memory of the immediate past and holes are developing in the present. Is Frida changing, or is it Ruth’s perception of her? Is Frida protecting her, or exploiting her?

‘There’s some sense in not going back. That way, you preserve it.’

Frida is a larger than life character who works hard to earn Ruth’s trust. But there’s a sense that Frida is not what she seems, and Ruth is very vulnerable.

I could not put this book down. Even though I had a fair idea of what might happen, the ending is heartbreaking. Ms McFarlane does a wonderful job of creating two very different characters: the vulnerable Ruth and the seemingly confident Frida, of reminding us how fragile connections can be. It also reminded me that the elderly are particularly vulnerable when they live alone. This is the kind of discomforting novel which you admire for its writing rather than enjoy for its content. And which may dwell in your mind long after you’ve finished it.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Currawong Manor
Currawong Manor
Prix : CDN$ 10.90

3.0 étoiles sur 5 ‘Fate can be a dangerous mistress.’, Aug. 21 2014
This review is from: Currawong Manor (Kindle Edition)
A book has been commissioned about Currawong Manor, once the home of Rupert Partridge, a famous artist. Elizabeth Thorrington, a renowned photographer, and Rupert’s granddaughter, has been invited to the house to take photographs of it and of some of the people that used to live there. The book, to be written by true crime writer and former musician Nick Cash, is intended to celebrate Rupert Partridge’s life, and to showcase his talents.

‘But there’s still time to leave, my girl. There’s always a choice of path – and sometimes it’s wise to take the less exciting one.’

But Currawong Manor, in the picturesque (Australian) Blue Mountains, with its own history and secrets, was the place where a great tragedy occurred in the 1940s. In the space of a single day, Rupert‘s wife Doris and their daughter Shalimar died separate tragic deaths. The only member of the family who survived was Elizabeth’s mother. Rupert himself disappeared. Elizabeth meets Dolly Sharp, who was a child living at Currawong Manor in the 1940s, and Ginger, one of her grandfather’s ‘Flowers’ as the three young women who lived with the Partridge family and posed for Rupert’s paintings were known.

Ginger has agreed to be interviewed and photographed, but she does not seem particularly enthusiastic. Elizabeth realises that both Ginger and Dolly know more about the mysteries of Currawong Manor than they seem prepared to share. Elizabeth is keen to find out more about her family’s past and to uncover the truth (or truths) behind the tragedy. Her own mother wants nothing to do with Currawong Manor, and warned Elizabeth against going there. So, what is the truth behind the tragedy? And will Ginger and Dolly tell Elizabeth what they know? What is the truth of Owlbone Woods, and does a gathering of currawongs signal impending death?

‘Are you up for an adventure?’

The story of Currawong Manor and its previous inhabitants unfolds as we move between Elizabeth’s present and Ginger’s past. If you like dark, brooding, atmospheric novels, this is one to savour. Secrets abound, and while some may appear obvious to the reader, others take time to be revealed.

‘Revenge is a lit match in a summer bush- you destroy everything around you as well as yourself.’

I confess that I did not like this novel as much its predecessor, ‘Poet’s Cottage’. The story is well written, the setting well described but at times it was a little too dramatic for me. Perhaps I prefer not to have the loose ends tied up quite so completely.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

THE THRESHING CIRCLE
THE THRESHING CIRCLE
Prix : CDN$ 5.48

5.0 étoiles sur 5 ‘They’re like the pieces in a mosaic: until they’re all set in place, there’s no clear picture.’, Aug. 19 2014
Set in Crete, ‘The Threshing Circle’ involves betrayal, kidnapping, murder, revenge and vendetta. While mostly set in 2004, this particular cycle of blood began in 1942, during the German occupation when a young woman named Marianna was murdered. In 2004, a young couple named Patrick and Eleni arrive on Crete – as tourists they say – but they seem very interested in the story of Marianna’s execution. When they disappear Kirsty, the expatriate Scotswoman who runs a kafenion and who has befriended them, is concerned. Those who remember Marianna see that Eleni resembles her, and a number of them have their own reasons for not wanting to revisit the past. In a reluctant allegiance with a local man, the intriguing and irritating, Barba Yiorgos, Kirsty tries to find them.

‘But sometimes there is nothing trivial about vendetta. Sometimes the cycle of blood must flow.’

There are a number of different angles to this fast moving story, and it isn’t until near the end that all of the pieces will fall into place. In the meantime, there’s a sense of great urgency. Patrick and Eleni are surely in danger, but where are they? And which stories, of those told to Kirsty, are true? Who can she trust? Is Kirsty also in danger, and what about Barba Yiorgos? There’s a fascinating cast of characters in this novel: some are good, some are evil, and some seem magical. Crete itself is central to this story with its famous monasteries, abandoned villages and long-lived hatreds.

‘Timing is everything.’

I found this a difficult novel to put down: each of the different strands of the story had me hooked. It’s difficult to say more without introducing spoilers, and I’m trying to avoid that. Suffice to say, the ending took my breath away and I’d hate to ruin that experience for another reader. This is a novel in which characters represent the best, and the worst of humankind. There is beauty and nobility, violence and ugliness. Oh, and one day I’d like to visit Crete for myself.

Note: I was offered and accepted a copy of this novel for review purposes. I am glad that I did.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

The Mussel Feast (Peirene's Turning Point Series)
The Mussel Feast (Peirene's Turning Point Series)
Prix : CDN$ 6.29

5.0 étoiles sur 5 ‘The mussels sat silently in the bowl; they were dead.’, Aug. 17 2014
A mother and her two children, a son and a daughter, are waiting for the father to come home. The mother has prepared an enormous bowl of mussels. While she doesn’t like them very much herself, they are her husband’s favourite dish and so she has spent a long time scrubbing the mussels in cold water. The family waits: he is usually home at six o’clock. He is not home at six o’clock, and while the family waits we learn more about the father and his role in this family mainly through the thoughts of his daughter.

‘It’s astonishing how people react when the routine is disturbed, a tiny delay to the normal schedule and at once everything is different – and I mean everything: the moment a random event occurs, however insignificant, people who were once stuck together fall apart, all hell breaks loose and they tear each other’s heads off, still alive if possible; terrible violence and slaughter, the fiercest wars ensue because, by pure accident, not everything is normal. Broadly speaking, that’s what happened.’

As we wait with the family (where is this father, and why is he late?) the other family members become more alive and step slightly outside the roles they seem to have assumed within the family when the father is present. Time ticks by: perhaps he’s not coming home, but will anyone really care? He has been critical of his wife and of his children, he is inflexible and seems to be uncaring. But in his wife’s words:

‘There is much goodness in him, and he is as noble as a man without real love can be.’

This is a powerful novella. We are left to do our own thinking and form our own conclusions about this family and especially the father’s role. Early anxiety – about making sure that everything is just right for when he returns – decreases as the wife and the children seem to become more relaxed (and how can this be?). And we readers are drawn into the scene: wondering about the father and why he is late, and his impact on his wife and each of his children. We don’t meet the father in person, but by the end of the novella I don’t like him any more than I like the mussels.

In fewer than 120 pages, Ms Vanderbeke creates a story that expands beyond the situation she has described. It took less than two hours to read this novella, but I’m still thinking about the characters. Wondering about the father, and about what happened once the final page was read. Thinking that there has to be more to it.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

The Night Flower
The Night Flower
Prix : CDN$ 7.23

4.0 étoiles sur 5 ‘There’s times in here I have to check I ain’t just gone and died already. ', Aug. 16 2014
This review is from: The Night Flower (Kindle Edition)
' All I’ve got is a pile of hours, and hours ain’t what people think they are.’

Usually, a 14 year old orphaned gypsy girl and a 26 year old widowed governess would not have much in common. Usually. But in 1842, when Miriam Booth is convicted of burglary and Rose Winter is convicted for the theft of fourteen silver knives and forks and one ring, both are sentenced to seven years transportation. Both will sail on ‘The Marquis of Hastings’ to Van Diemen’s Land.

Miriam has lived by her wits in the Newcastle slums, until she became involved in house-breaking. Rose, once much higher in society than Miriam, became a governess when she was widowed with three young children of her own. Her father has been imprisoned for slave trading (a prosperous but by then illegal trade) and Rose’s position in society suffers as a consequence.

Conditions aboard the ship are appalling, although women with money to spare or willing to be ‘wife’ to one of the sailors can secure a better passage. Rose, who is accompanied by her youngest daughter Arabella, is able to share a cabin while Miriam is stuck in the hold where she is befriended by Ma Dywer, a former brothel-keeper travelling to join her convict husband already in Van Diemen’s Land.

After they arrive in Van Diemen’s Land, Miriam and Rose are hired by the Reverend Sutton to work at his nursery for convict babies – an alternative which seems much better than working at the Cascades Factory for Women.

‘But I was coming to see for myself how there was a lot of difference in this world between the Christian way of thinking and the Christian way of acting.’

Alas, the Reverend Sutton is a hypocrite, and while he frequents the brothel next door and also takes advantage of some of the women who work for him, any evidence of sexual transgression (and especially pregnancy) is to be condemned. Miriam, who falls in love with the Reverend Sutton’s son John, becomes trapped.

‘I am arresting you for the crime of being advanced in pregnancy.’

And Rose? Her daughter Arabella has been taken from her, and while she takes good care of the convict babies she longs to look after another child.

I found it difficult to put this book down. Rose and Miriam tell their stories with their own distinct voices. Miriam’s reflects her much lower class upbringing: much more direct and full of grammatical error. Rose has more control over what she says and how she says it. As a consequence of their two distinct voices and different perspectives, I felt that I obtained a more complete view of their lives, the times and society in which they lived. While we start with a fair knowledge of Miriam’s life and circumstances, Rose’s story unfolds during the course of the novel. By the end of the novel I felt particularly sorry for Miriam: so young, so vulnerable, so trusting.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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